Bus cancellations spark new calls to end privatisation

April 16, 2023
Sydney bus drivers campaigning against privatisation in February. Photo: RTBU NSW/Facebook

New South Wales Labor, in opposition, campaigned against bus privatisation and committed to establishing an industry taskforce to assess a key report, provided to the former Coalition government, on the failures of bus privatisation.

Now, however, the new minister claims that it cannot do much.

Transport Minister Jo Haylen said in a long interview at Randwick Bus Depot on April 12 that cancelling the existing bus companies’ contracts would make compensation excessive, because many of the contracts are “up to ten years”, adding, “the options available to us are limited”.

The cancellations of bus services over the last two years, to meet “on time” targets, left many people stranded and generated outrage.

Labor, in opposition, campaigned against the Liberals’ privatisation failures, including buses, but was light on the detail.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Matt O’Sullivan on April 12 blamed the service cancellations on the former Coalition government’s contracts with private operators, which failed to penalise companies for cancelled services.

Haylen, he said, has been briefed on how the contracts “fail[ed] to financially penalise operators after a certain number of cancellations are reached each month”.

Haylen told the SMH that this meant the Coalition created contracts with private bus companies that “actually give them financial incentives to cancel bus services”. Such incentives, she said, was “not right” and she said the workforce had become “utterly demoralised”.

According to official figures, about 28,000 bus services in Sydney were cancelled or partially cancelled last August.

“Once [a bus company] has failed, it is not going to spend the money to try to meet the target because … they are not going to be fined any more,” David Babineau, divisional secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) told the SMH.

A Legislative Council report, Privatisation of bus services, tabled last September, recommended the government consider returning privately-operated bus networks to public hands. It linked the privatisation of public transport with a sharp decline in service quality and higher costs for commuters.

The report also found the Coalition’s privatisation of the bus network had motivated cost cutting, which unfairly impacted on vulnerable people. It recommended ending the privatisation of the inner west, the eastern suburbs and northern beaches bus routes when they expired.

Greens MLC and committee chair Abigail Boyd told the SMH last September that the degradation of services was a result of privatisation.

“For a short-term sugar hit to the budget, they sold the public out, and they’ve trapped us into restrictive contracts that will take years for future governments to unpick.”

Babineau said while the union “didn’t need an inquiry to tell us that bus privatisation has been a disaster … it’s fantastic to see it there in black and white.”

“The justification was fabricated, the touted savings remain theoretical, and the harm to workers and the travelling public has been immediate and widespread,” Babineau said.

In late January, two months before the election, Sydney bus services were cancelled, causing mass havoc. RTBU Tram and Bus Division NSW President Peter Grech said at the time that Transport for NSW’s service cuts, in conjunction with the private bus operators, were to blame.

Grech said given that the private operators are “struggling to attract and retain bus drivers”, it means “operators are axing hundreds of services every day”.

The NSW Greens took a policy of free public transport on all buses, trains and ferries and putting public transport back in public hands, unwinding privatisation to the election.

Boyd is on the record for successfully getting the Legislative Council in 2019 to oppose the privatisation of the northern beaches, eastern suburbs, North Shore and Chatswood bus services in regions 7, 8 and 9.

The Greens “Rebooting our public transport” policy states that: “Public transport is a public good. Its value extends beyond its direct profitability … A well-functioning public transport system is vital for the economic health of our state, for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for ensuring community mobility and equity.”

The Greens have promised to push to restore the State Transit Authority, reverse the privatisations in Sydney and Newcastle, bring bus manufacturing back to NSW and ensure workers across the industry are given fairer wages and conditions.

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